Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brexit Anniversary

22 Jun

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last year seems almost like a decade – so many seismic events and unexpected twists and turns. And somehow, here we are, one year on from the EU referendum, a time to reflect on what has happened …

As chance would have it, last year, on the day after the referendum, I was booked on the train to Scotland.  I’d forced myself to go to bed at 2 a.m., when the first signs that Leave might swing it, had begun to emerge.  It was still a surprise to find that that was what had happened, as I scrambled to get the last of my stuff together, and headed out the door later that morning.  The atmosphere on the train was unusual – a lot of thrown-together people looking slightly shell-shocked and talking in hushed tones into their mobile phones.   As we powered through the country, there were patches of flags from either side of the debate – the mood seemed one of surprise.  The news was still sinking in.

When I eventually got to Edinburgh, my first stop was the pub.  Scots were juggling the results of two successive referenda – one over independence from the UK, one over membership of the EU. I got talking with a bunch of people having an after-work pint and chewing over the day’s news.  They were a mix of Yes and No voters in the Scottish referendum, but all said then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, that given a choice, they would vote to leave the UK in any second referendum, and seek Scottish membership of the EU.  Unlike in England, the subject of Ireland, the border and the peace process came up quite soon in conversation.  My unrepresentative little vox pop confirmed a picture of urban Scotland as firm Remain territory. I’ve often wondered if the people I met have changed their minds meanwhile, as the falling oil price and political turbulence in the year since, has seen support for a second Scottish referendum apparently diminish, and a desire for stability (ha!) become perhaps stronger.

What else has changed in the year since, concerning Brexit? In some ways remarkably little – in spite of the triggering of Article 50 and the recent snap election, we are only slightly further on in our progress towards exit.  When thinking about what will happen with reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s countries, or overall freedom of movement, or being in the Single Market, I’m often reminded of that round in the QI panel show, where they ask an obscure question, and all the contestants wave a paddle in the air, signifying that ‘Nobody Knows’…. The form of Brexit we will eventually experience remains up in the air, and the complexities of disentangling ourselves from laws, supply chains and regulations often seem to be intensifying rather than resolving.

In other ways, things have changed quite a bit – the vote to leave has led to a greater understanding of divisions and inequalities in the UK, with analysis of voting behaviour showing fault lines between urban and rural populations, highly educated people and school leavers, older and younger voters.   UKIP is basically a spent force, and the recent election, paradoxically perhaps, heralded a return to two-party politics, as the Brexit vote made for a complex set of interactions with broader party allegiances. In the snap election, Labour capitalised on frustration with the consequences of social inequalities, while the Conservatives emphasised the importance of leadership on Brexit, in an electoral strategy which imploded around the failure of leadership demonstrated in the campaign. They won the election, but lost their majority, and are now all too aware of issues around Ireland and Brexit…

One year on, we have election winners who have lost, and losers who scent victory next time – which could well be considerably sooner than anticipated by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.  Theresa May has just been  in Brussels for a dinner with the European Council, where she was looking to outline Britain’s negotiating position in more detail.  It seems that she may be aiming for Brexit a la carte. Funnily enough, we don’t have a ready English phrase for that – unless perhaps it’s cherry-picking – which is something we need Eastern European seasonal migrants to do …. There’s no chance of an all-you-can-eat buffet of options on Brexit terms, so can we hold out for some Chef’s specials? Brexit is often discussed in terms of having our cake and eating it, but we have yet to discover what proof of pudding is in our eating ….

 

 

We’re going on a Leader Hunt (with apologies to Michael Rosen)

18 May

We’re going on a leader hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
 

Uh-uh!
Brexit!
Long complex Brexit.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
A leak!
A massive growing leak.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!

A Sofa!
Comfy TV sofa.
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through with it!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
Numbers!
Complicated numbers.
We should go over them.

We can’t go under them.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through them!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A media storm!
A swirling whirling media storm.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A polling booth!
A narrow gloomy polling booth.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through with it!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
WHAT’S THAT!
One nose!
Two ears!
Two eyes!
IT’S A LEADER!

Quick!
Back through the polling booth!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
Back through the media storm!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?
Back through the numbers!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
Back through the sofa!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!
Back through the leak!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!
Back through Brexit!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!
Get to our front door.
Open the door.
Up the stairs
Oh no! …….

Let’s (not) have a heated debate …

20 Apr

After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.

Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think.  And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual  member of the public.  But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?

Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered.  But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not.  This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way.  Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future.  There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.

And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life.  Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility.  Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman.  For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.

Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents.  For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election.  That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised.  If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views.  Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …

 

 

Theresa May writes that letter … (with apologies to the Great American Songbook)

28 Mar

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from the EU

I’m gonna make deals oh so sweet

They’re gonna knock me off may feet

Same terms as Single Market

I’ll be glad I’ve got them

 

I’m gonna smile and say I’m really feeling sovereign

And sign ‘with love’ the way you do

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from the EU

 

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from the EU

I’m gonna make deals oh so sweet

They’re gonna knock me off may feet

Falling immigration

Is my aspiration

 

I’m gonna smile and say I’m really feeling sovereign

And sign ‘with love’ the way you do

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from the EU

And make believe it came from the EU

 

 

 

For the 100th time …

17 Mar

Hey people, bring out the bunting – this is my 100th blog … Now I know we shouldn’t get too excited, it’s not like it’s Christmas, or even the Queen’s Speech or the budget, but it might just be a call for celebration …

It’s not as if it’s been a mad rush or anything – I first blogged in 2012 – but it’s been something of a revelation.  When I first put blogging finger to keyboard, it was a kind of professional challenge.  After many years of writing for research and policy people, I thought I’d take matters into my own hands, and see what happened if I blogged about the things that interested me for a wider audience.  And I have had a lovely time ….

My background (as regular readers will know) is in stuff to do with gender and policy, and so I joined Mumsnet bloggers network and twitter, and began to publish.  I soon confirmed my suspicion that policy stuff could find readers beyond fellow professionals.  And so, I persisted. If I saw things that inspired me to write, and that I didn’t have an immediate outlet for at work, I’d blog.  And, you know, things just grew from there …. I have a whole load of links, followers and feedback that would never have happened if I hadn’t.

For my 100th blog I thought it would be good to reflect on what has been most popular.  There is, it seems to me, no formula for that: some blogs, you slave over the detail and they never make the mark; others that you write off the cuff work really well.  Sometimes you meet the news agenda to no great avail, others you reflect on something days or weeks later, and it’s a hit.  If I could identify the formula for guaranteed blogging success, I guess I’d be writing this blog from a tropical paradise, not somewhere in England …

When I looked up my Top 5 all-time most popular blogs, I could see elements they had in common.  Most importantly, they were promoted more widely than I could ever achieve alone – if you want an audience, find it through sympathetic hosts, and in online conversations.  Even if there’s a lot of crap out there, I’ve found a twitter community and a supportive platform – I’d like to think that anyone can.

And content-wise, my Top 5 taught me another lesson: for all that I’ve written over the past five years, the apple may not fall far from the tree.  My most popular post is Silicon Valley Chickens and Women’s Eggs – as a wonk married to someone geeky, how technology affects relationships has always been up for discussion ; at number 2, A Cabinet of  Curiosities is all about female representation in politics – a feature of much I’m engaged with professionally and personally; A Post-Truth Christmas Stocking is about the madness of 2016, which we wonks lived through with intensity; number four is Shared Parental Leave, all jacket no bike, including both the wisdom of one of my best friends, and the trouble with the model of shared parental leave we’ve gone for in the UK, which has figured large at work and at home; finally, number 5 is Out of kilt-er, my take on a poorly judged political broadcast in the last Indyref – Wonklifebalance is proudly Celtic ….

And so, I have concluded, your most popular blogs find you – I’ve written many others which looked fit for purpose, even hot to trot. But the very best – decided by readership – all have a wee bit of me inside them. Another lesson may be, that what goes around comes around: my very first blog was about the folly of a new yacht Britannia ….  Thanks everyone for reading, I’ll carry on writing too …. next up blogging 101 😉

 

 

 

 

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